‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

The holidays are fraught with angst. Since late October, clients have been coming in with anxiety over upcoming family visits, tales of previous drama or longtime estrangements, and sadness over those who are no longer here. Many are financially strapped and feel pressure about spending money they don’t have. In addition, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to remind us of our childhoods, when life was either simpler and happier, or filled with pain.
One thing therapists try to help clients remember during the season is gratitude. Helping them shift their focus from dread in the face of impossible holiday expectations to joy in the little things, or at least appreciation of what they have, is critical. Family conflicts come into sharp relief at this time of year, when arguments over whose turn it is to visit whom, or whose turn it is to host, are rampant. Young adults who have started their own families may want to stay home with their little ones, the family dog and their own Christmas tree. Grandparents and other relatives can take offense, becoming demanding and petulant.
I try to encourage clients who are brooding over some slight or disagreement to recalibrate and, counter-intuitively, approach their loved ones from a place of empathy. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of becoming defensive, I counsel them to “catch themselves” and put themselves in the others’ shoes, imagining what they must be feeling. A grown daughter who has made the difficult and guilt-ridden decision to stay home with her own young family, instead of spending too much money to travel to her parents and other relatives, is certain to soften when she pretends, for a moment, that she is the grandmother. How would she feel if her grown children chose to stay home? Likewise, Grandma could do the same: when her daughter calls to explain that she and her family are not coming, after all, she can put herself in her daughter’s place and respond with understanding. Regarding financial pressure, helping clients find ways to simplify and edit down their lists and responsibilities is key.
Regardless of whether it’s holiday time or not, learning to first consider the feelings of others when we become “triggered” makes for a more successful life script. And keeping things simple—with the focus on being together, instead of on material things—is the healthiest prescription.